Quantum computing isn’t an idea that gets the same attention as artificial intelligence or automation, two technological ideas now entrenched in both our cultural and business lexicon. Nor is it as easy a concept to wrap our heads around as 5G – just 4G, but better. Yet quantum computing has the capacity to be more impactful than any of these other pieces of technology, with benefits (and risks) for consumers, businesses, and society as a whole. And it’s closer than we might think.
So how do quantum computers work? And what’s so special about them? Instead of bits, the binary system that all non-quantum computers use for their computational processes, which are either on or off, a 1 or a 0, quantum computing uses qubits. Qubits can, through quantum mechanics I’m not sure I’m qualified to explain, be both 1 and 0 at once.
As Wired explains it: ‘Take a coin. If you flip it, it can either be heads or tails. But if you spin it – it’s got a chance of landing on heads, and a chance of landing on tails. Until you measure it, by stopping the coin, it can be either.’
The flipped coin is a bit, the spun one a qubit. And what that spun coin allows computers to do is to hold uncertainty within their processes – which in turn allows them do things much, much faster than traditional computers. A computer today does things linearly, one process after an another.
A quantum computer could do them all at once – and by entangling qubits together, by yet more quantum mechanics not too many of us understand, you can make multiple qubits tackle the same process all at once. Theoretically, a quantum computer using entangled qubits could tackle, within minutes, computational problems that would take modern computers millions of years.
So far so sci-fi.
It’s worth saying we’re still some way off that level of quantum computing. For the most part existing quantum computers are small, 50 qubits or less – and they’re prone to making errors far more often than binary systems. For quantum computers to be truly useful they’ll need to be thousands, if not millions, of times bigger – and they’ll need to iron out their mistakes. That might, however, not be too far off.
Quantum computing experiments have reached a new milestone this year, reaching 99.51% accuracy in three different studies. They’re also growing in size – and are likely to reach usable scales within this decade. So what might quantum computers be able to do?
Most individuals, for a start, are unlikely to have access to them. Qubits are finicky, affected by both temperature and by electrical signals, and they need to be kept in carefully controlled settings. But for businesses and governments the applications could be revolutionary. Any process that requires collating and analysing vast quantities of data or solving complex equations could be done in a fraction of the time. Consumer analysis and retail operations, medical research, machine learning – all would go from complex and time consuming processes to ones that could be completed quickly. The possible benefits to businesses, to consumers, and to society as a whole should not be understated.
Yet there are risks too.
Experts are already warning of the so-called `Quantum Apocalypse` – because the same computational power that can be used for beneficial applications can also be used to break every form of modern binary encryption currently used today. Bad actors with access to quantum computing, whether that be hackers or rogue states, could drain bank accounts, access protected personal and consumer data, or even gain entry to national infrastructure and defence systems. A `quantum arms race` is already underway with the world’s superpowers racing to be the first to gain access to quantum computing – and to `quantum-proof` their own systems and data against incursion.
Quantum computing offers unbelievable opportunities and presents very real dangers. It may not be as recognisable to us as automation or 5G, or as glamourous as artificial intelligence, but it’s on track to change the world.
It might be time for both businesses and consumers to start paying attention.